Pamela Benton Interviews Torin Finser, PhD
"The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."
From Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Servant as Leader,” an essay first published in 1970.
Dr. Finser is a Waldorf school graduate who went on to earn his PhD in educational leadership. With insights gained from years of service as a Waldorf class teacher and special subject teacher, going on to serve on the boards of six Waldorf schools, Dr. Finser shares heart-centered and practical approaches as a consultant in organizational dynamics and leadership development, and as a keynote speaker at conferences in Europe, Asia, and throughout North America. Dr. Finser currently serves as general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America and is chair of the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He is the author of six books.
Pamela Benton: How does leadership out of the spiritual path of anthroposophy offer solutions for government, small intentional communities, schools, etc?
Torin Finser: Anthroposophy is a path of self- development. Depending on how leaders take this up, this inner work can lead to greater self- awareness. This in turn informs our decisions and helps inspire future direction. So many people today look at government at the local, state and federal level and wonder why we seem to make so little progress regarding the challenges of our time. It seems that there is much rhetoric, campaign positioning, repetition of short slogans, and no real understanding of the causes of our problems. Some find it hard to even vote given the endless cycle of old clichés. Why are so many intelligent people seemingly incapable of finding real solutions?
For example, I recently had a conversation with our local post office manager. He has received notice that his position will be eliminated. As in many small towns across America, the post office is a social center, supporting activity in the town center, which in our case includes just one store, gas station, restaurant and town hall. Without a post office, we rob the community of an essential part of the social fabric. If the federal budget needs to be cut, why not look to subsidies for large oil companies, or contractors in Afghanistan? As the economy goes downhill again, I am sure someone will suggest make-work spending to increase jobs...if we had just kept our local post offices...
So it seems that many in government are short-sighted, to say the least. As Mark Twain once said, “Common sense is not so common.”
Effective leaders need inspiration and the will to act on them. Where do inspirations come from? There are many possible ways to work with this question, but one aspect has to do with self -development and self- awareness. Exercises, such as the ones given by Rudolf Steiner, can assist in this process: practicing open-mindedness, positivity, control of thought and will, equanimity, etc., can create soul conditions that prepare the way for greater receptivity. Just as in preparing the soil for a garden in the spring, so the human being can prepare the soul for inspirations. When they arrive, they are often unexpected. Sometimes an inspiration will come to me while brushing my teeth! It takes but seconds to receive an inspiration, but it can change an entire day, or even a lifetime. Inspirations give us new content, new substance out of which to guide our decisions and take initiative.
This leads me to another key point. Initiative is needed for change to occur. This means taking courage in hand and taking up a task that may not at first seem popular, but that can bring needed change. I have recently completed a small book called Initiative (Lindisfarne Books 2011), in which I explored ways we can support and foster initiative. Having an insight or inspiration is not enough, we need to innovate by taking initiative.
PB: How do we develop ourselves to be leaders who are conscientious and service oriented?
TF: There has been much discussion of Robert Greenleaf’s (1904-1990) work on servant leadership in recent years. This is a crucial concept that moves us away from the old “command and control” style of leadership that used to prevail. To this notion I would also like to add the possibility of situation leadership, which takes its clue from a reading of the situation at hand and then finds the appropriate leadership response regardless of who happens to “be in charge.” In fact, any member of a group can serve as a situational leader and take initiative if needed. This vastly expands the resource base of talent available to groups and organizations.
In my book Organizational Integrity (SteinerBooks 2007) I devoted a chapter to planetary types (moving beyond “men are from Mars…”) to look at how different leadership styles assist or hinder action in an organization. If we know our preferred leadership style, we can better act appropriately.
PB: How do we go about it? What kind of practices can people enter into on their own to see results? To what should our thoughts, feelings and will be oriented?
TF: One basic aspect is to develop our schools, businesses and groups as learning organizations. Rather than just focus continually on production (test scores, profits, outcomes) we need to step back from time to time and reflect on practices: what have we learned from recent experience? What can we do better next time? Who else should be involved? We often become insular and self-serving. A learning organization is continually expanding in terms of scope and consciousness. There is no limit to insight!
I also feel that we need to learn to trust in the wisdom of groups—the voice of democracy. No one person is perfect (at least I have not yet met such a person), but the voices and capacities within a group can go a long way toward finding good solutions. People have good ideas, and when you bring them together, all sorts of synchronicity is possible. I have often been in conversation with leaders who are desperately trying to figure out what to do with clients or employees. My response is often very simple: ASK THEM. I have learned to trust in the basic goodness of human nature and the willingness of people to sacrifice, if necessary, for the greater good.
For example, our local hospital, when faced with state cuts in funding, decided to “ask them”—in this case their employees. As a result, they came up with a creative flex time schedule combined with varying rates of pay depending of peak or slow times in the day. Everyone participated in the solution, and the budget was balanced, at least for that year. Never underestimate human creativity and ability to problem-solve!
I have tried to apply this whole systems approach to my work at Antioch University and with the Anthroposophical Society. For instance, in August of 2012 we convened a Leadership Colloquium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with the express purpose of exploring the possibilities of collaboration between Waldorf Schools, Camphill Communities, Weleda, biodynamic farms, etc., to see if we could "pull together" to better serve the values we hold in common. We stepped out of old hierarchies and established work relationships as we engaged in intense dialogue in which everyone played an equally vital part. We must not let old forms hold us back from exploring future needs.
PB: Can you give us some examples of other current role models?
TF: It is hard for many of our children as they hear about baseball players on steroids, disgraced politicians and inept corporate executives who mismanage funds and libor rates. Where can we find role models today? We have to look harder, but they are often to be found locally: the elderly person working part-time in the hospital store, the baseball coach, or the librarian staying after hours to help with homework. If I could make one post-election wish it would be that the federal government would provide more support for local initiatives, non-profits and organizations that are already providing service. We need to strengthen and support those who uphold the fabric of the local community.
PB: Can you give an example of enlightened government policy?
TF: When I visited Australia to give several lectures in January, 2012, I heard a story that caught my attention: As with many countries around the world, the Australian government passed a stimulus package. But instead of money flowing to banks and other corporations, the government came up with a simple plan: two million dollars for each school in the country to be spent on schools—either renovations or new construction. This included the 14 Waldorf schools in Australia. No other strings attached! I had the pleasure of visiting some schools and admired the new auditorium, gym or classroom wing made possible by this grant that employed people, supported education, and went to local communities. It is possible to govern wisely.
PB: What are your hopes for developing our future leaders?
TF: My greatest hope is that as we improve our schools, we will have a new generation of graduates who will enter the work place with sound values, imagination, critical thinking skills and increased social skills. If they are open to a life of learning, we can imagine a future that will be truly worthy of the human being. Education is not just a matter of concern for parents; it is a vital project for all who care about the future of this planet.
It is for these and other reasons that I have dedicated my life to teaching, first in Waldorf elementary schools, and now at Antioch University New England and our Waldorf teacher education programs. My service also extends to our local community, where I have served on numerous boards, and to global issues while serving as a general secretary for the Anthroposophical Society. We cannot stand by and wait for others to do the work; there is no better time than the present. The future is rushing toward us: will we be ready?
PB: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.
Pamela Benton has many years of service as a business professional in the Philadelphia region, has worked in anthroposophical organizations and continually strives to have a heart-centered approach to leadership.